SAB on 'Russia's hybrid threats: trends and developments'

The Constitution Protection Bureau (SAB) – one of Latvia's three security services – has published the latest in a series of commentaries on topical issues. This time the subject under examination is the Russian hybrid threat. The commentary is reproduced in unedited form below. More articles are available at the website

Russia's hybrid threats: trends and developments

Recently in the public space there has been widespread information on Russia`s activities in the hybrid spectrum, including activities in EU and NATO Member States to reduce support for Ukraine, destabilize the unity of Wester countries and increase polarization in societies.

According to most recent National Security Concept of Latvia, the range of hybrid threats includes economic, including energy, blackmail, as well as interference in the fields of science, finance and education. Hybrid activities are carried out with the aim of weakening Western unity, democratic values, decision-making and overall ability to resist or obstruct aggressors’ activities. Hybrid activities tend to break down the boundaries between war and peace, use open and hidden tools, and changes the intensity of the activities carried out as necessary.

Russia has used a wide range of open and hidden instruments to achieve its political objectives in the past, such as supplies of natural gas, access to the Russian market, the dissemination of narratives on traditional information channels such as TV or the use of troll and bot armies and targeted information to influence users of social networks. In other regions of the world, such as Africa, private military companies closely associated with the Russian Ministry of Defence are active, providing support for the preservation of the power of African regimes, allowing Russia to strengthen its political and economic positions in the region, including by finding new markets for the sale of Russian-made armaments.

Mapping of anti-European hybrid activities
As most European countries are members of NATO and the EU, and with NATO's growing defense and deterrence capabilities, the likelihood of open military confrontation by Russia diminishes. However, while Russia's political elite and decision-making process remain unchanged, Russia's interest in influencing European countries' decisions through hybrid activities will remain.

Since Russia's widespread invasion of Ukraine, Russian hybrid activities in Europe have focused primarily on reducing support for Ukraine and hindering the strengthening of defense capabilities in the Baltic Sea region. To achieve these objectives, Russia is taking measures to reduce European unity, to intensify internal political tensions within European countries and to create/increase instability.

Russian hybrid activities are deployed in the European region and cover a number of “domains” such as information and cyber domain; military; intelligence and active measures; political and diplomatic; the economic and legal domains.

The use of the information domain to spread narratives of the so called “Russian world” and discrediting the positions of western countries is one of most visible examples of hybrid activities by Russia. Russian activities in the information domain are carried out in an open and hidden manner.

In an open way, Russia continues to build and disseminate messages supporting its position, using information channels primarily created for internal Russian consumption, such as regime-controlled television, internet, radio channels and the print press, as well as information channels for external audiences such as “Sputnik news”. Covert activities include targeted campaigns on social networks, including usage of bots and trolls or a “fake news platforms”, such as recently sanctioned “Voice of Europe”, to spread messages beneficial to Russia and as a cover for other forms of active measures, including influencing European elections.

In a hidden way, Russia has developed activities in social communication networks such as telegram, using these networks not only to disseminate its messages, but to gather information and recruit Russian supporters.

Latvia and other European countries continue to face high cyber threats from Russia and its supporting hacktivist groups. DDoS attacks are continuing against Latvia, targeting public institutions, critical infrastructure and service providers, including financial, transport and communications providers and private companies. Cyber-attacks are continuing on companies that provide support, especially companies providing software development and maintenance services, with the aim of gaining indirect access to their customer networks.

There are examples of attacks by Russian or related hacktivist groups on media service providers, such as temporarily taking control of media channel to post pro-Russia content.

In the military domain in the Baltic Sea region, Russia continues to implement activities to gather intelligence on the development of military capabilities of Baltic Sea region States and cooperation within NATO, including following up on allied military exercises and movement of military units.

Aggressive behavior by Russian jets near NATO-allied ships and planes is seen episodically, which could lead to unplanned collisions. Active disruption of the Global Positioning System (GPS) in the Baltic Sea region continues, in order to limit attacks by Ukrainian drones in western areas of Russia, while also increasing the risks to civil aviation in the Baltic Sea region.

The military environment is hit by active Russian nuclear rhetoric, which is used as a tool to deter the West from providing military assistance to Ukraine (especially supplies of new weapons systems) and increasing presence in NATO's eastern flank. Russia's nuclear rhetoric highlights tactical nuclear weapons, the threshold for use of which is lower than for strategic nuclear weapons, to potentially deter Western countries from strengthening support for Ukraine.

The so-called private military companies, which, despite their legal status, are closely linked to Russian “Power ministries”, maintain their role as an instrument to defend Russia's external interests. The use of mercenary companies is primarily observed in Africa, where the activities of these companies are aimed at strengthening the security and position of the ruling regimes, in exchange for access to the economic sectors of the respective countries, especially mining. Its mercenary presence in African countries allows Russia to strengthen relations with those countries, which is particularly important in the face of isolation from Western countries.

Improving relations can also increase Russia's chances of gaining support or reducing resistance to its initiatives in the UN.

Active Russian intelligence activities are still ongoing in Europe. European and other Western countries have taken and continue to take steps to illuminate and deport Russian intelligence officers, as well as identifying and detaining so-called “illegals,” or Russian spies with long-established false identities. Under these circumstances, Russian intelligence activities have been hindered, but not stopped as Russia is adapting and looking for new ways to obtain intelligence.

Russian security services have demonstrated readiness to implement so-called active measures to support the country's interests, including in NATO Member States. Since Russia's widespread invasion of Ukraine, the primary objective of the active measures has been to reduce support to Ukraine, including through sabotage activities against infrastructure used to store and transport aid to Ukraine.

Such measures seek to prevent Ukraine from receiving the goods it needs, as well as to psychologically influence and deter aid organizers. Hybrid activities in the political environment are focused on influencing the decision-making process in Russia's favor. To this end, Russia has used interests and political groups as lobbyists or direct actors in political processes. In the case of political parties or certain candidates, Russia has used other hybrid arsenal tools in the past, to support parties and candidates, such as information channels under its control or economic tools and illegal financing to strengthen political power positions. In this way, Russia is crippling the political systems of democratic countries to ensure that more Russia-friendly political forces come to power or maintain it.

In the economic environment, Russia's traditional hybrid activities have involved using energy resources to “reward” countries supporting Russia and “punish” its opponents. Similarly, access to the Russian market has been used. Since February 24, 2022, the presence of Russian energy resources in European national markets has decreased significantly, as has trade volumes in other commodity groups, thereby reducing Russia's ability to use these types of instruments. At the same time, it is still evident that the most Russia-friendly European countries continue to receive energy resources from Russia. Since 2022, the Baltic States have taken significant measures to prevent energy dependence on Russia. Currently, the highest risks to the energy sector are related to electricity management lines, with Baltic States and Russia connected to BRELL network. Risks will ease with the planned desynchronization in 2025.

Nationals of several Western countries have been detained in Russia in recent years, citing various types of violation as reasons. In this way, Russia aims to improve its position in discussions with Western countries so that these detained nationals can be “exchanged” for concessions beneficial to Russia or for Russian nationals detained in the West. Russia also continues to use other types of legal instruments, such as prosecuting cases and issuing arrest warrants, to target its citizens outside Russia and other critics of the regime. Such arrest warrants have been issued for several deputies of the Latvian Saeima and increase the risks for these persons if the visit Russia-friendly countries, where Russia may request the detention of these persons. Russia continues selective approach to international law to defend its interests, including criticizing the Baltic and other European countries for violating certain rights.

As a partial hybrid activity aimed at the use of the legal environment, there is the instrumentalization of migration implemented by Russia and Belarus, supporting and organizing migration flows across the borders of the European Union and tending to abuse the existing EU asylum procedures. Russia and Belarus aim to reinforce the weaponization of migration through activities in the information and political domain, accusing EU Member States of failing to comply with international law.

Conclusions and forecasts

With V. Putin's authoritarian regime remaining in power in Russia and continued Russian aggression in Ukraine, as well as continued Western support for Ukraine, military and other assistance, Russia will continue to use hybrid activities against Europe and the West.

The hybrid activities so far demonstrate Russia's ability to operate in different environments and use different instruments. Trends over the past two years also show Russia's ability to adapt its activities in response to retaliation by Western countries. At the same time, Russia is not always able to ensure high synchronization of hybrid activities, especially when activities fall under the competences of different institutions. In the past two years, the understanding of hybrid activities of Russia and other authoritarian countries and necessary retaliatory measures has also been significantly strengthened in Western countries.

Taking into account the wide spectrum of hybrid threats, the best way for timely identification, prevention, mitigation and forecasting of hybrid activities is cooperation and strengthening of resilience of the State institutions and non-governmental sector, which is already being implemented and refined in Latvia. In other Western countries, increasing awareness of hybrid threats strengthen international cooperation, thereby reducing the impact of hybrid activities on Western countries and societies.

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